Social media: stimulating interaction or lashon hara?

My wise (much) younger sister recently sent me a link to a YouTube video that’s got me thinking. I’m often very late to these things – bear with, Miranda – so you may all have forgotten it already. It’s billed as a ‘spoken word film’ by London-based writer and director, Gary Turk. The five-minute film, Look Up, has received over 42 million hits on YouTube. Set to backing music by New Desert Blues, Turk’s video makes a strong – if a tad romanticised for my liking – case for prioritising your actual life over your virtual life.

Snippets from his songlike appeal include, “This media we call social is anything but” and “We are slaves to the technology we master”.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Many of us – I’m including myself, Mom – interact more with the “lovely people in our phone” (thanks for this phrase, Mandy Collins) than the people in our lives, who are sometimes lovely, sometimes annoying, sometimes boring.

Much of the allure of my phone – apart from the fact that only my fingerprint holds the key to unlock its wonders – lies in its ability to deliver a snapshot of the outside world. Of course, this snapshot is far from accurate, given that it arrives via a carefully curated filter – my Twitter feed. I choose who to follow so I (generally) read tweets from people whose views I agree with or am interested in. And if those people start to tweet sentiments I find uncomfortable or abhorrent, I unfollow then and, where necessary, block their bigoted arses.

The allure of Twitter for me lies in its power to connect me to the thoughts and conversations of people I like or admire, but would never a chance to meet IRL (in real life, for those not on Twitter). So my phone is a melting pot of local and international journalists, politicians, writers, editors, moms, philosophers, language lovers, word nerds, and a cross section of South Africans who share my love of and desire to better understand our country. Those of my family, friends and acquaintances who are on Twitter – and there are only a handful of them in my inner circle – are infrequent users; my actual life seldom encroaches on my virtual one.

And if I’m not on Twitter, I’m missing out on what could be the most interesting discussion/debate/soliloquy/breaking news story/rant/chat/satire/comedy ever. And the beauty of Twitter is that virtually anyone can participate. Unlike Facebook, you don’t need someone’s permission to access their tweets and comment on them. (I’ve never understood making your tweets protected and visible only to those you let in. Thankfully, very few people do this.)

My early experiences on Facebook were the complete opposite: a tsunami of mind-numbing status updates and carefully constructed family photographs that left me feeling my own life was lacking. And often from people I would cross the road to avoid if I saw them IRL. So, I’m better off than Keenan Mulvaney, who tweeted ‘SIX PEOPLE ON MY FACEBOOK ARE CELEBRATING BIRTHDAYS TODAY. I HAVE NO IDEA WHO ANY OF THEM ARE’ on 20 May. Like renowned author Margie Orford, I committed ‘Facebook suicide’ several years and my life has been the richer for it. (Just imagine, Mom…)

Social media: stimulating connectivity or infectious disease?

But there is another side to this constant connectivity: there is no escape from the painful truth and interpersonal hostility that seeps into my timeline more and more often. Not wanting to miss out on the stimulating and thought-provoking interactions means dodging the venom, the vitriol and the violence. Social media gives people license to say the cruel, ugly things they wouldn’t have the courage or platform to express in their sad lives. It also allows this negativity to spread virally like an infectious disease.

Turk’s film made me pause and realise that constantly craving connection inevitably means you take the good with the bad. And so I sometimes land up feeling like I did a few months ago when I wrote a column called ‘The world is too much with me’ – exhausted by the weight of the negative sentiments in the world. At any moment someone out there is insulting or assaulting someone else; unchecked, social media brings that reality into our homes and minds.

‘Look Up’ and listen to my good Jewish mother

Which got me thinking about something my mother has always tried (often in vain) to teach us: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. When I hear myself saying this to my own children, and realise I sound like her, I know that she is right.

Judaism, aware of the harm that speech can cause, forbids lashon hara, literally translated as ‘evil tongue’. We are forbidden from speaking badly about another person, even in truth, or listening to such speech. In fact, in Jewish law, lashon hara ranks above stealing or fraud. The thinking behind this is that money can be repaid and goods replaced but nothing can repair the harm cause by gossip, even a belated apology.

All of which goes against the old adage about sticks and stones. Words can and do harm. And social media is the conduit through which words and thoughts are spread throughout the world.

Social media: stimulating interaction or lashon hara? You decide.

It appeared first on The Media Online on 05/06/2014